Ellen Pao's Tenure at Reddit May Be Over, But the Drama Isn't
In the mere five days since her departure, major Reddit players past and present have weighed in with opposing views on the current state and direction of the company, fractures that highlight the tricky path between free speech and legitimate business that the site must navigate moving forward. It seems Pao's resignation won't necessarily make this tightrope walk any easier.
First, to backtrack a bit: Pao was appointed interim CEO back in November 2014, when Yishan Wong resigned from the position citing stress and exhaustion. Prior to that, she had been Reddit's head of business and partnerships.
Her tenure as CEO was far from smooth, but things reached a boiling point July Fourth weekend, when news broke that Victoria Taylor, Reddit's director of talent in charge of coordinating the site's popular Ask Me Anything posts, had been fired. Beloved by Reddit moderators, many took their subreddits offline in protest. This prompted a strongly worded apology from Pao – "we screwed up. We haven't communicated well, and we have surprised moderators and the community with big changes," she wrote – but it was evidently too little too late. Four days later, she resigned.
In her stead, the company announced that co-founder and former CEO Steve Huffman would return to Reddit as chief executive, and lead alongside co-founder Alex Ohanian, who rejoined the company as executive chairman when Wong resigned last fall.
Pao may gone, but the drama isn't.
On Monday, Reddit's chief engineer Bethany Blount abruptly quit after only being at the company for two months. While Blount said her decision was not a direct result of Pao's departure, she did attribute it to a lack of faith in the company's direction, saying in a recent interview:
I feel like there are going be some big bumps on the road ahead for Reddit. Along the way, there are some very aggressive implied promises being made to the community — in comments to mods, quotes from board members — and they're going to have some pretty big challenges in meeting those implied promises.
Meanwhile, tension continues to fester around Taylor's dismissal. Why she was let go – and who, ultimately, made that decision – remains unclear. Wong, Pao's longtime friend and champion, took to Reddit in her defense on Monday, accusing Ohanian of firing Taylor and letting Pao take the subsequent vitriol. He wrote:
Alexis wasn't some employee reporting to Pao, he was the Executive Chairman of the Board, i.e. Pao's boss. He had different ideas for AMAs, he didn't like Victoria's role, and decided to fire her. Pao wasn't able to do anything about it.
Wong went on to say that Ohanian's failure to take responsibility displayed a "stunning lack of leadership." He continued, "I used to respect Alexis Ohanian. After this, not quite so much." To which Ohanian responded, in a comment on Wong's post: "It saddens me to hear you say this, Yishan. I did report to her, we didn't handle it well, and again, I apologize."
For Reddit, these are minor distractions. The real source of tumult lies in figuring out what, and who, the site is for. One of Pao's most controversial actions as CEO was shutting down five overtly offensive subreddits (including r/fatpeoplehat and /r/transfags). The move didn't make anyone happy; many users felt that it injected censorship into a site that was built on free speech, while others were confused why these five relatively minor forums were shut down while larger, more influential and arguably hateful subreddits remained online.
While Pao was the focus of much of the criticism, Wong alleges that Pao was historically the one fighting for controversial subreddits to be kept alive. "The most delicious part of this is that on at least two separate occasions, the board pressured [Pao] to outright ban all the hate subreddits in a sweeping purge," he wrote. "She resisted, knowing the community, claiming it would be a shitshow."
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The tension between Reddit's reputation as a place where users can say anything versus its attempt to transition into a more reputable content platform is coming to a head. On Tuesday, Huffman appeared to draw a line in the sand. While the "overwhelming majority" of content on Reddit is great, he wrote in a Reddit post, "there is also a dark side, communities whose purpose is reprehensible, and we don't have any obligation to support them. And we also believe that some communities currently on the platform should not be here at all."
Huffman's upcoming Reddit AMA, in which he is expected to unveil a set of firm guidelines regarding offensive and obscene content for the site, takes place on Thursday, but his post is a strong indication that things will change for a site typically seen to accept all content, no matter how vile. "Neither Alexis nor I created reddit to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen," he wrote.
For many users, this may be new information.
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